The Fort Lee Museum rolled out our current exhibit “A Night at Fort Lee’s Riviera Nightclub” a few weeks ago. This exhibit, which runs through February 2nd, is a must see. The Riviera Nightclub closed forever after the 1953 New Year’s Eve show.
From 1931 to 1936 Ben Marden operated his Riviera Nightclub out of the old Villa Richard Restaurant atop the Palisades in the Coytesville section of Fort Lee. After an electrical fire destroyed the building on Thanksgiving night in 1936, Marden had a modern art deco new Riviera Nightclub built south of the old building, atop the Palisades just north of the George Washington Bridge. This nightclub was a great success and Marden operated it until 1942 when he closed it for the duration of the Second World War. Bill Miller bought the club from Marden and reopened it in 1946. Here the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., the Andrews Sisters and Bud Abbott & Lou Costello performed.
On the second floor of the Riviera was the Marine Room. Only those who were high rollers could get into this secret and lavish gambling parlor. Entry was made past the art deco bar / lounge and through a janitors closet. On the far wall of that closet was a large fan which when plugged in caused a false wall to open and display a stairway with a lit banister which led to the second floor and one of the most elegant gambling parlors in America. On the floor of a portion of this Marine Room was a gorgeous red rug embroidered with images of the Riviera and George Washington Bridge.
Once the Riviera was closed after it was taken in 1954 for the construction of the nearby Palisades Interstate Parkway, many of the items in the Riviera, from silverware to rugs, were auctioned off to the public. This wonderful piece of Fort Lee history, the Riviera rug, was sold to a millionaire from Texas who had the rug in his billiard room for decades. In 2005 we learned that the rug was being sold at an estate sale. That year the rug was to be auctioned off at Rose Hill Gallery in Englewood, New Jersey. Fort Lee Historical Society Vice Chair Lou Azzollini and myself went to Rose Hill Gallery and viewed the rug. We immediately called our good friend Lou Gallo who served as a headwaiter at Bill Miller’s Riviera. Once we described the rug over the phone, Lou Gallo advised us to grab it, as that was the rug in the Marine Room. Fortunately for us, once bidding commenced, several of the prospective bidders backed off knowing we were bidding for the rug for the Fort Lee Museum / Fort Lee Historical Society. We won the auction and soon the rug was unfurled in our Fort Lee Museum with Lou Gallo present. Lou was amazed at the great condition of the rug he clearly remembered. He then detailed a story from Frank Sinatra’s comeback performance at the Riviera in September of 1953. Sinatra had a two-week gig at the Riviera from September 1-15 that year. During his opening night the one thousand seat showroom / dining room was full of celebrities including his then wife Ava Gardner. Lou remembered seeing Sinatra and Gardner standing on this very rug as they argued and made up.
The “”Riviera rug” is on display as part of our exhibit so if you want to catch some magic and perhaps bring your significant other to view the rug, take time to think of all the elegance of that famous nightclub atop the Palisades, and perhaps, for just a little while you can dance to the sounds of Sinatra and imagine you are with Frank and Ava.